The Rise of the Celebrity Chef

Do these chefs de­serve the at­ten­tion and adu­la­tion they get in the age of so­cial me­dia?


They are all over me­dia, all of a sud­den. Now, even pri­vate school-ed­u­cated brats who grew up with kusin­eras want to be them, mak­ing their par­ents shell out large sums of money so they can learn how to make a proper hol­landaise in hu­mid kitchens. Chefs have be­come the new rock stars: if you don't want to be them, then you most prob­a­bly want to sleep with them.

In a coun­try that re­mains so­cially di­vided and class-con­scious, work­ing in the kitchen is a sur­pris­ing claim to fame. It makes one won­der what changed. How are these glo­ri­fied kusineros sud­denly get­ting more fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram than Prince Wil­liam?

I turn to food in­dus­try in­sid­ers for their take on this global phe­nom­e­non that has struck our is­land na­tion as well, as I caught some of them awake late at night—prob­a­bly scour­ing so­cial me­dia sites for food porn or hop­ing to catch No

Reser­va­tion re-runs on ca­ble. Sassy TV Host (STH), known for his cheeky sound bites, is sur­pris­ingly pen­sive when I ask him the for­mula to be­com­ing a celebrity chef. He pines for the days (from 1960s to 1990s, to be ex­act) when a chef had to pos­sess “a com­bi­na­tion of any of three in­gre­di­ents: real tal­ent and cre­ativ­ity, com­bined with real ex­pe­ri­ence in the real world.” He points out how Nora Daza’s best­selling cook­books cat­a­pulted her to fame; how a slew of “suc­cess­ful and well-re­viewed restau­rants” made Larry J. Cruz a leg­end; and how all-around cool guy and re­nais­sance man (he’s a cham­pion fencer and painter, among other things) Gene Gon­za­lez con­tin­ues to en­joy the re­spect of both me­dia and his peers thanks to “an elo­quence that makes for good copy. . .backed up by ex­cel­lent menus and con­sis­tent dishes.”

But how things have changed, he ob­serves. STH rec­og­nizes how TV is a “tre­men­dous launch­ing pad,” show­cas­ing a chef’s tal­ent in a way that is very rarely af­forded to most. But, as ex­pected in show busi­ness, “get­ting a chef to star in a show is not usu­ally about skill—al­though that is im­por­tant, too—but re­ally more of good looks and good English.” Are we talk­ing about Er­wan Heussaff? “Over­rated,” he dead­pans.

“But he’s such a beau­ti­ful man!” ex­claims nor­mally De­mure Food Ed­i­tor (DFE) about the pop­u­lar TV host/restau­ra­teur. I agree; should we hate on him be­cause he has per­fect hair? Is it such a trav­esty to gaze upon his chis­eled pecs be­neath that deep V-neck while he mas­sacres a chicken pic­cata? “He should at least know how to cook,” de­clares Chinito Chef (CC). He ex­presses his frus­tra­tion over Heussaff’s weak grasp of ba­sic cook­ing skills in his Tastemade videos. And yet, you watch those, I pointed out. “His videos are well-made,” CC ad­mits, “but he needs to learn more. Soon, peo­ple will catch on that he doesn’t com­pletely know what he’s do­ing.”

Chat room gos­sip shifts to­wards other tar­gets—such as the TV con­test win­ner whose head has swelled to mas­sive pro­por­tions, much to the dis­may of his pre­vi­ously-sup­port­ive pro­ducer. There’s the con­ceited restau­ra­teur who re­sents con­struc­tive crit­i­cism, his un­re­mark­able string of restau­rants en­joy­ing con­sis­tent buzz thanks to the en­dorse­ment of celebrity friends.

But while some names get eye roll emo­jis, these food in­dus­try fol­low­ers are also gen­er­ous with their praise for those whom they feel de­serve the ac­co­lades. Sandy Daza is un­touch­able in terms of pedi­gree and tal­ent. DFE states, “(Daza) can def­i­nitely cook. He just needs to make his serv­ings (at Wooden Spoon) big­ger.” Chef Tatung Sarthou, with the al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ous launches of his TV show and long-awaited book on Filipino cook­ery, is a celebrity that cer­tainly earned his stripes through smarts and mileage.

JP An­glo ap­pears to be a younger Gene Gon­za­lez, be­ing quite the Re­nais­sance man him­self, with tap­ings and surf­ing tak­ing up equal parts of his time, even as he runs his Sarsa chain and the more high-end Kafé Bat­wan in Rock­well, Makati. “An­glo’s restau­rants are well-re­ceived, serv­ing de­li­cious food,” DFE points out. “So he can play around as much as he wants.” His laid­back style has also made him a lik­able col­league. “He knows how to bal­ance. As a chef, you need to do other things to de-stress, gather in­spi­ra­tion,” CC im­parts. “That's why An­glo is al­ways fresh and his dishes are in­spired.”

Sur­pris­ingly, the afore­men­tioned ob­ject of dis­dain is also ad­mired for his de­ter­mi­na­tion. “In a way, I think Er­wan de­serves his suc­cess be­cause he’s hard­work­ing. Mas bilib ako sa masi­pag kaysa

sa ma­g­a­l­ing,” CC says. “Ma­g­a­l­ing is tal­ent; it’s some­thing that comes nat­u­rally. Masi­pag gains skill and ex­pe­ri­ence. De­vel­op­ing a skill means learn­ing how to do some­thing and to keep do­ing it well.”

If gath­er­ing a mil­lion fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram is a skill or hav­ing a dish be the most liked on so­cial me­dia that day be the new mea­sure of suc­cess, then per­haps these celebrity chefs are good at what they do. But we still crave more than that, de­spite our cul­tural fas­ci­na­tion with celebri­ties. It seems that pop­u­lar­ity these days is mis­con­strued for re­spect, and that is where our con­fu­sion lies. This in­sider’s com­ment pretty much sums it up: “Who is the Pi­noy equiv­a­lent of David Chang? Or Mario Batali? Parang wala.”

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